Our small amount of time in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal was strikingly memorable. This was not alone due to the wonderfully friendly people we met, the deep and fascinating culture or the beautiful, if fragile architecture, it was because all of these things were impacted dreadfully one week after our return when the country was hit by a catastrophic earthquake. It is with deep fondness, sadness and ultimately an intense feeling of good-fortune and privilege that we remember our time in this unique and captivating place.
Our first 24 hours in this city began with Thamel – the backpacker honey pot, with nearly as many Australians as locals around. Arriving in the middle of the power outage for our area (there are scheduled rolling outages throughout the valley), we immediately hit the streets to make the most of our time in this busy, noisy and vibrant pocket of the city.
Sound and movement hit head on and seeped into each other as shopkeepers, pedestrians, bikes, cars, even buses, all shared the same space – the narrow laneways masquerading as streets. It was a constant negotiation between road users – just set forth and don’t be hit by anything!
The Garden of Dreams
As the day was heating up we decided to do what most locals were doing and that was find relief from the dust, traffic and bustle in the Garden of Dreams. This green and gorgeous oasis in the middle of downtown Kathmandu is not just for tourists – locals (free of charge) flock to the manicured lawns, picnicking, lying on rattan mats reading. It originally served as a private garden, considered the most sophisticated of its time, before the neo-classical buildings and pavilions began to crumble due to neglect. It has only recently been restored thanks to the help of the Austrian government (whose assistance can be seen in many parts of the city), and is now a spot not to be missed on a visit to Kathmandu.
We were enjoying ourselves so much that we decided to linger over a crazily expensive glass of bubbles in the bar in the corner of the gardens, where the chirping of birds were only upstaged by the ceaseless honking of horns beyond the high walls. The frolicking squirrels also provided entertainment, as did the lovers sitting on benches in romantic, thigh-touching proximity.
The Ship Bar & Restaurant
Drawing on our pre-trip research as a guide, we headed to the Ship Bar & Restaurant for our first meal in Nepal, so it was apt that we chose the traditional Nepalese dish dal bhat. This dish is usually eaten two or three times a day (most locals only have 2 meals), and was perfect for vegetarians, consisting of 4 tiny dishes of vegetables cooked in curries or chilli stir-fried, with a small lentil soup (dal) and a mound of rice (bhat). The flavouring was subtle, with elegant control of spices. We chose very non-traditional drinks to accompany this feast – Cosmopolitans. The service was efficient, yet friendly and relaxed – hopefully a precursor of more to come in this welcoming country.
New Orleans Cafe & Bar
Delving deeper into Thamel, we stumbled upon the New Orleans Café & Bar. Luckily, it was Wednesday (the night they provide live music), and we settled into a tiny table in the courtyard surrounded by multi-storied buildings, just as the musos were tuning and warming up. The group played traditional instruments – flute, tabala (drums), guitar and something the size of a violin, but it was played like a cello. The set was a funky, modern slant on traditional music, played with extreme skill. A Lindeman’s shiraz cabernet (a nod to the Aussie patrons) and some tortilla crisps with the best homemade salsa EVER topped the night off beautifully.
Hotel Mi Casa
We stayed in the commendably quiet, yet central, accommodations of Hotel Mi Casa. Thanks to its location in a side street off a side street off the busy road Tridevi Sadak, we had an excellent night’s sleep in a spacious and traditionally decorated room with a comfortable bed and a shower with plenty of hot water (we stayed in the Mt. Annapurna room). The staff were welcoming and efficient, and there was a really nice sense of community amongst guests – aided by the courtyard at the front of the hotel where we gathered for breakfast and afternoon drinks.
KATHMANDU DURBAR SQUARE
We were collected in the morning by our guide, Rajesh Shahi, who was recommended on TripAdvisor for his ability to find the cultural gems of Kathmandu Valley. So as our visit was contained within the valley, he was a perfect choice. His winning smile was accompanied by a keen sense of humour and a vast knowledge of his city.
Deviating from our usual travel mantra, we chose to stay in different areas of this capital city for a night or two each to get a feel for the various components of the whole, rather than have one base. So while we ended up in Patan for our second night, we began the first of our 5 days with Rajesh (and our smiling driver, Shree) with a visit to the tourist ‘biggies’ of the city, all located in the vicinity of Kathmandu Durbar Square.
Entry to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is 750 Rp for a single day entry (about $10 AUD), but is free to locals. Kathmandu Durbar Square is where the kings of Nepal were once crowned and from where they ruled. It is the historic heart of the old town and contains some spectacular traditional architecture. Our walking tour began on the southern edge of the site strolling along ‘Freak Street’ (Jhochhen Tole) – named for the ‘hippie trail’ of the 60s and 70s, now housing cafés and souvenir shops. Nearby Basantapur Square, filled with people, dogs and trinkets on low tables led us closer to the temples. As we walked through the plaza, the sun was already beginning to scorch, and the denim covered men and women armed with straw brooms completed their hypnotic sweeping dance from one side to the other of the paved square, only to stop, return and repeat.
The Royal Kumari
Before moving into Durbar Square itself, Rajesh took us to Kumari Bahal – the building that is home to the ‘living goddess.’ A pre-pubescent girl, usually between the age of 4 and puberty and from a particular caste of Newari gold and silversmiths, is selected as a manifestation of the divine female energy, an incarnation of Taleju. This girl is selected through a stream of rigorous tests to ascertain if she is the one worthy to ‘house’ the goddess. (It’s a long, but fascinating, story that you can read more about at National Geographic). There are numerous kumaris in the Kathmandu Valley, but the most important and revered is the Royal Kumari. This current vessel of the goddess (Matina Shakya) was chosen in 2010 when she was only 3 years old. We stood in the Kumari Chowk (the courtyard of the Kumari house), admiring the architecture and wondering if the goddess would make an appearance at a third floor window. Tourists and locals alike stood with expectant, upturned faces. As Rajesh was telling us more of the story of the living goddess in discreet, subdued tones, a man appeared at the window waving his arms and calling out to all present, ‘No photographs, no photographs!’ Everyone went immediately silent, waiting. Then she appeared. She was tiny, exotic, delicate. The make up was bold and the expression impassive, with a hint of nobility in the bearing. All in the courtyard bowed their heads murmuring ‘namaste’ as she gracefully turned her face left, then right, then centre. This display lasted about 20 seconds and she was gone. After a breath, quiet chatter began, but even the cosmopolitan audience of tour groups who often bug others with their volume, kept it all very subdued and respectful. She certainly had an impact.
More of Kathmandu Durbar Square…
The pavilions, shrines and temples in and around Kathmandu Durbar Square are quite overwhelming in number, even with our guide only focusing on “the main ones.” One of particular interest was Kasthamandap, believed to be one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world, and supposedly built from a single tree. In fact, Kathmandu owes its name to this building. It was once a rest house on the trade route to Tibet, now it serves as a shrine as well as a place for the city’s homeless to sleep at night.
The rest of the morning was spent exploring the Old Royal Palace (Hanuman Dhoka, now housing a museum) with its various wings from different centuries. The oldest eastern wings date from the 16th century, but the Hanuman Dhoka was originally founded during the 4th to 8th centuries. It really is a hobbled together kind of place in terms of architecture! This is a five-acre palace, but only a small portion of the grounds is open to the public. The Basantapur Tower, encountered half way through the museum trail, is nine stories high and the perfect vantage point to view the city. [Side note: This tower was damaged significantly in the 2015 earthquake and lost a number of floors.]
Our Kathmandu story continues…
Read our full Kathmandu story here:
Part 1 (current): Thamel & Durbar Square
Part 2: Patan
Part 3: Pashupatinath & Boudha
Part 4: Kirtipur & Nagarkot
Part 5: Changu Narayan & Bhaktapur
Part 6: Namobuddah & NYE in Bhaktapur
Part 7: Bisket Jatra in Bhaktapur
Our guide was Rajesh Shahi
He can be contacted on Facebook or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Other relevant articles on Kathmandu since the 2015 earthquake:
Photos of Kathmandu before and after the 2015 earthquake – BBC News
Is it time to go back to Nepal? – Lonely Planet